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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Madison school district in disarray

This has been a dreadful few weeks for the Madison public schools.

Under attack from both the left and the right, and hobbled by self-inflicted wounds, the district finds itself in a weakened if not a precarious political position. What's the worst of it?

How about the flawed school superintendent search that yielded only one viable candidate? Or Gov. Scott Walker's sneak attack to push school vouchers and privatized schools in Madison? Both worthy contenders, but for me, the capper was the shenanigans surrounding the Madison school board primary.

Has Madison politics ever seen such high-handed, self-absorbed behavior as that of leading vote-getter Sarah Manski?

Backed by key political players in town, Manski ran a profoundly irresponsible and deceitful campaign. By dropping out within 48 hours of winning the primary, she betrayed the voters, subverted the election and undermined confidence in school governance.

Why in the world did she run in the first place if she knew her husband's graduate studies might take her out of state? More importantly, why didn't she end her campaign before the primary instead of after it?

The results are as bloody as a five-car pile up on the Beltline. Manski's name stays on the ballot, and TJ Mertz, a stalwart progressive like Manski, should lope to an easy victory in the general election, despite receiving only a third of a tiny primary turnout that magnified the strength of activist voters who favor ideological candidates like Mertz and Manski.

Does anybody doubt that the results would have shifted dramatically had Manski 'fessed up before the primary? Mertz surely would have captured most of her votes, while Ananda Mirilli probably would have run second, setting up a real election on April 2, when a much larger (and less ideological) swath of Madisonians will vote. But in an act of political vandalism, Manski has rendered the April 2 election for this seat meaningless.

Good riddance to her.

The funny things is that I had a degree of sympathy and good wishes for all the candidates -- they also include Dean Loumos and Wayne Strong vying for Seat 3 and James Howard and Gregory Packnett for Seat 4 -- when I saw them in a forum on the Monday before the primary. Frankly, none of them were knockout impressive. But I respected their willingness to step forward.

Simply put, there isn't a tougher public office in Dane County than a seat on the Madison school board. Somebody is always mad at you, money is tight, and educational issues are devilishly complex. And this just in! There is no magic wand to wave our school problems away. All we know for sure is that more of the same won't cut it.

The schools are failing to educate the district's growing population of minority kids. Note that in 1991, 21% of students were non-white; 20 years later, the figure was 53%. Only about half of black and Latino youth graduate. The percentage deemed to be college-ready is embarrassingly small.

The district's problems are not new. Almost a decade ago, John Wiley, then chancellor of UW-Madison, convened a meeting to discuss how the Madison schools, once a draw for faculty recruitment, were becoming a hindrance. Among the complainants, Wiley recounts, were top black UW faculty and staff who did not like how their children were treated in the Madison schools.

Those concerns, of course, echo loudly today in the efforts of the Urban League's Kaleem Caire to address the problems of minority students in the Madison schools. For that effort, Caire has been ostracized by progressive leaders. My opinion is very different. I belong to the Urban League, and I think that Caire is uncommonly brave in facing unpleasant facts.

Like it or not, we're in an era of change and choice in education. Extending public vouchers to private schools in Madison may be wild overreach by the governor, but Madison parents already have choices for schooling.

If they don't like their neighborhood school, parents can open-enroll their child in any Madison school or even in a suburban district. They can pack up and move to a suburban district. They can enroll their kid in a public charter school like Nuestro Mundo. They can send their child to a private school. They can home-school. They can sign their kid up for one of the many online schools.

This is a good thing. As long as academic programs address state educational standards and meaningful accountability is in place, why shouldn't parents be able to pick a school setting they feel best suits their child's needs? More to the point, why shouldn't the district's response to the painful achievement gap demonstrate this flexibility?

Progressives struggle with this. In the face of the Walker ascendancy, they're basically fighting a rearguard and probably losing action. They want to restore the old model that standardized education, tightly controlled alternatives, and protected teachers with an industrial-style union contract -- and sadly also did a wretched job of educating black children. African American leaders like Caire are still expected to fall in line, despite the old system's manifest failure.

Because he hasn't, Caire is shunned. The latest instance is the upcoming ED Talks Wisconsin, a progressive-minded education-reform conference sponsored by the UW School of Education, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the mayor's office and other groups. Discussion of "a community-wide K-12 agenda" to address the achievement gap is a featured event. A fine panel has been assembled, including Mayor Paul Soglin, but Caire is conspicuously absent.

How can progressives not bring the Urban League to the table? Agree or disagree with its failed plan for the single-sex Madison Prep charter school, the Urban League has worked the hardest of any community group to bridge the achievement gap. This includes launching a scholars academy, the South Madison Promise Zone, ACT test-taking classes and periodic events honoring young minority students.

But Caire is branded as an apostate because he worked with conservative school-choice funders in Washington, D.C. So in Madison he's dismissed as a hapless black tool of powerful white plutocrats. Progressives can't get their head around the idea that the black-empowerment agenda might coincide with a conservative agenda on education, but then clash on a dozen other issues.

In an ideological age, coalition politics like this are denounced as a betrayal. Too bad for the Madison schools. But there's a lot of "too bad" going around the schools.

Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

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